Canadian Premiere – Trapped in Typhoon Alley, the Mystery of MV Derbyshire

mv derbyshire at sea
MV Derbyshire. Photo courtesy Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO)

Discovery Channel (Canada)’s new documentary series, “Disasters at Sea,” premieres on April 16th at 10 PM ET.  The first episode, “Trapped in Typhoon Alley,” looks at the mysterious sinking of the Capesize Ore/Bulk/Oiler MV Derbyshire, with the loss of 42 aboard, in Typhoon Orchid in 1980.  To this day, the Derbyshire remains the largest British flagged ship ever to have been lost at sea. What happened to the mighty ship would be a perplexing mystery and the subject of considerable controversy for more than twenty years.

The disappearance of the MV Derbyshire in 1980 was a shock to many in the world of shipping. In the 1970s and 80s, bulk carriers were sinking at a rate one ship lost every three to six weeks, usually with the loss of all hands. Many of these bulkers were older, often literally worn-out, poorly maintained with ill-trained crews, and operated by fly-by-night owners. 

The Derbyshire was not one of these ships. She was almost new, well maintained, with a capable British crew and operated by a well respected British shipping company. Almost 1,000 feet long and 170,000 DWT, she was a Capesize ship, too large to fit through either the Panama or Suez canals. She was one of the largest bulk carriers of her day, designed to sail beneath Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope in the Southern Ocean, in some of the most brutal seas in the world. 

If any ship should be able to ride out a typhoon, it should have been the Derbyshire, yet she vanished south of Japan without issuing a distress call. When searchers scoured the area looking for survivors, no trace of the ship was found, other than an oil slick near where she sank in waters over two miles deep.

One other thing made the Derbyshire different from other bulk carriers which disappeared. The English crew, who died when the ship went down, had families waiting for them at home. The Derbyshire families demanded an answer to the question — Why, of all ships, did the Derbyshire sink? For more than two decades, the Derbyshire families would wage a dogged campaign to find that answer. The end result would, ultimately, rewrite the rule books and make bulk carriers around the globe significantly safer.

Trapped in Typhoon Alley” is an excellent documentary which dramatizes the tragic loss and the decades-long investigations which followed. The acting is first-rate, supported by good quality computer graphics showing the doomed ship at sea as it loses its battle against the typhoon. Photos taken by ROV over two miles below the surface show the widespread wreckage of the ship.

Interspersed with the dramatization are interviews with family members of the Derbyshire crew, who tirelessly fought to find the facts behind the loss of their loved ones. Also interviewed are mariners, including those who had sailed on the Derbyshire; an oceanographer involved in the investigation; and several naval architects. (For the sake of full disclosure, I am one of the naval architects interviewed.) 

Trapped in Typhoon Alley” is fascinating, engaging, and often harrowing. It tells a complicated story clearly and effectively, balancing the human and the technical aspects of the tragedy. To their credit, the producers committed the time and resources to get it right.

 In the US, “Trapped in Typhoon Alley” has been broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel and is available on demand from several cable providers.